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Critical Preferences

Originally posted Feb 2010 at http://www.criticalrationalism.net/2010/02/28/critical-preferences/

What problem is the idea of a “critical preference” intended to solve? (And how does it solve it?) I think the problem is this:
We form theories to solve our problems, and we criticize them. Sometimes we decisively refute a theory. If this leaves us with exactly one theory standing, there is no problem, we should prefer that theory.

Refutations can be hard to create. Often there are several theories offered as solutions to one problem, which contradict each other, but which are not decisively refuted. What are we to do then? The intellectual answer is to invent new criticisms. That may take years, so there is a pragmatic problem: we must get on with our life, and some of our decisions, today, may depend on these theories.

The idea of a critical preference is aimed to solve the pragmatic problem: how should we proceed while there is a pending conflict between non-refuted theories?
Popper proposes (without using the term “critical preference”) that we can form a critical preference for one theory, and proceed using that theory in preference to the others. The critical preference should be for whichever theory best stands up to criticism, or in Popper’s words the theory that “in the light of criticism, appears to be better than its competitors” (C&R p 74). Popper writes something similar in Objective Knowledge, p 82 (see also pages 8, 16, 22, 41, 67, 95, 103). Similarly, Firestone wrote, “The best problem solution is the competitive alternative that best survives criticism.”

(How we judge which theories are better, or best survive criticism, is another question, and Popper gives various guidance (e.g. C&R p 74, and the idea of corroboration), as does Deutsch (e.g. his recommendation to prefer explanations that are hard to vary), but I’m not interested in that here.)

Would others here agree that this is the problem and solution of critical preferences? (My purpose here is that I think it is mistaken, and I want to get the theory right prior to offering criticism. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood it.)

Follow up post: http://curi.us/1489-critical-preferences-and-strong-arguments

Elliot Temple on July 11, 2013

Comments (18)

I think Popper was wrong to suggest that the one that survives the severest criticism should be preferred. All that follows logically, given the premise that our preference is for the truth, is that those that have been criticised should not be preferred. it follows then that we can be agnostic about the last surviving solution, given the state of criticism, it does not follow that it should be accepted. To claim otherwise is called the eliminativist fallacy. You can accept it if you choose, but your acceptance does not follow and is not determined by the investigation. Since an investigation can only give negative advice. That is the lesson of critical rationalism.

Anonymous at 2:33 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8841
if the last surviving idea says "you should do X now" and you have no criticism of it, then you should do X now.

if the last surviving idea says "you can solve Y problem by Z action", and you have no criticism of that, and you want to solve Y problem, then you should do Z action.

> That is the lesson of critical rationalism.

no, it's *your* position. it's not CR's position.

curi at 3:32 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8842
or if the last surviving idea says you should believe X about Y, and you have no criticism of that (any doubts, hesitations, objections, any reason that'd be a bad idea, any guess that's mistake, any lead that there might be a superior alternative, etc, etc), then you should believe X about Y.

curi at 3:34 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8843
> no, it's *your* position. it's not CR's position.

Err, what? I said it was a lesson of CR. I never spoke about positions.

it does not follow from something having no criticism that you should do it. This is just your own proposal and it does not follow from the investigation, which was exactly my point.

Anonymous at 4:35 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8844
it's not a lesson of CR, it contradicts CR.

> it does not follow from something having no criticism that you should do it.

call the idea X.

it does follow (that you should do X) if X says you should do X (and you have no criticism of X). you need to pay more attention to what X is, which is what i was explaining and you didn't engage with (you just repeated the same mistake i'd just refuted with 3 examples, and responded to none of the 3).

curi at 4:38 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8845
Let me be more precise in my statement. Just because the statement "you should do x now" has no criticism, does not mean you should accept the statement. That is justificationism.

Anonymous at 4:40 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8847
if you have no criticism of accepting the statement, and it says you should accept it, then how would it make any sense not to accept it? you have zero objections to accepting it. you seem to just want life and thinking to be arbitrary whim.

Anonymous at 4:42 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8849
not accepting a theory, T, is itself an action/choice/option. you have a criticism of not accepting T because the premise was that accepting T was the ONLY option/theory/whatever that survived criticism.

if only one option survives criticism, there are NO ALTERNATIVES that have survived criticism, including "do nothing".

Anonymous at 4:44 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8850
If there are many proposals including the proposal to do nothing, and all of the proposals have been criticised apart from one. Then you should accept the one that's left, since there are no other proposals that one can accept. But this is false, because all of the proposals can be accepted whether or not they have criticisms, since a criticism is itself sometching we accept as being successful. The criticism is false relative to the proposal and the proposal is false relative to the criticism, it requires a decision. It does not follow form the investigation that I should accept any of them.

If I accept the state of the investigation, then it follows that there is only one options. But I might not accept that I was rigorous enough.

Anonymous at 5:32 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8855
>It does not follow form the investigation that I should accept any of them.

This refers to the criticisms of the proposals not to the proposals.

Anonymous at 5:34 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8856
your new take is maybe you decide some other ideas have survived criticism after all, so we don't have the situation of having exactly one theory which survived criticism (which is the situation we were talking about). i don't get the point. we were talking about whether, having decided there is exactly one idea which survived criticism, you should therefore accept it.

and if you don't think the investigation was rigorous enough, that is a criticism of accepting the one idea remaining from the investigation. so you, again, don't actually have the situation being discussed which is exactly one idea which survived criticism.

Anonymous at 9:05 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8860
You added into the discussion that the one surviving solution to the problem. Includes the idea that doing nothi has also been criticised, but doing nothing is not a solution.

Now we have to break this down into two different scenarios.

The first scenario is that of accepting a scientific theory. The fact that you have one surviving theory, it does not follow that you should accept it. You can remain indifferent.

The second scenario is one in which you in a situation where you have to act in some way to solve a problem and the idea is that there is one solution left and that doing nothing has been criticised. But this leads to a serious problem. And that is if it turns out that you have a criticism of this solution. This puts one in an awkward position. Since all possible proposals for actions have been criticised.

Anonymous at 10:05 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8861
>and if you don't think the investigation was rigorous enough, that is a criticism of accepting the one idea remaining from the investigation.

No, it is not because accepting an idea is to do with whether it is true. A criticism is directed at its truth. That the investigation was not rigorous enough is not a criticism of the proposal.

Anonymous at 10:09 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8862
> but doing nothing is not a solution.

of course it is. it's an action you can take in regards to a problem. it may solve your problem, or not.

> The first scenario is that of accepting a scientific theory. The fact that you have one surviving theory, it does not follow that you should accept it. You can remain indifferent.

no, because being indifferent is a rival theory which is refuted (by premise of only one surviving theory).

> Since all possible proposals for actions have been criticised.

that's a COMMON situation. you then have to brainstorm new solutions.

if action becomes URGENT then you brainstorm solutions to the NEW PROBLEM of "what should I do about X situation, given that I am under this time pressure?" the new problems get easier as one more urgently needs a solution and therefore can come up with solutions like "X isn't ideal but b/c i have so little time left I'll take it." (in that way, and X you criticized previously may solve the new, easier problem.)

this is explained at e.g. http://fallibleideas.com/avoiding-coercion

Anonymous at 10:14 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8863
> No, it is not because accepting an idea is to do with whether it is true. A criticism is directed at its truth. That the investigation was not rigorous enough is not a criticism of the proposal.

accepting an idea is an action, a human decision. whether or not you've investigated something enough to accept it, or you should be undecided for now and think about it more first, is relevant to human actions like this.

Anonymous at 10:15 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8864
given some situation, some evidence, some known candidate solutions, etc, etc, there is a right answer (and objective truth) about what you should do about it and what judgement you should reach.

if you have exactly one non-refuted theory about what this objective truth is, and no criticisms of it, you should proceed accordingly. what else could you do? all alternatives are refuted.

your attempts to get around this often rely on using terminology which is reasonably understandable in general conversation, but not suited to speaking precisely about epistemology.

Anonymous at 10:17 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8865
> Since all possible proposals for actions have been criticised.
that's a COMMON situation. you then have to brainstorm new solutions.


That is a proposal for action. What if you cannot come up with any proposals that work?

Anonymous at 11:46 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8866
> That is a proposal for action. What if you cannot come up with any proposals that work?

see my essays on the matter, e.g. the linked one above and others at http://curi.us/1595-rationally-resolving-conflicts-of-ideas

Anonymous at 11:54 PM on July 18, 2017 | #8868

What do you think?

(This is a free speech zone!)